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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 11 (2005) No. 1

Notes of Me: the Autobiography of Roger North. Edited by Peter Millard. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. [xix, 353 pp. ISBN 0-8020-4471-9. $65.]

Reviewed by Stacey Jocoy Houck*

1. North Studies

2. “The Natural History of Mankind”

3. The Edition


1. North Studies

1.1 There has been a great deal of activity in Roger North studies in the last two decades. The voluminous writings of North (1651–1734) have been exhumed from libraries and transcribed or re-transcribed from original manuscripts, bringing forth his wealth of thought and knowledge concerning everything from law to architecture to breeding.1 North’s writings mark him as one of the most interesting intellectuals of the late seventeenth century. In addition to his disciplinary studies, North’s General Preface was a pioneering work in the field of autobiography. Although North clearly intended that essay to be included with his biographies of his brothers, it was largely ignored until Peter Millard edited it along with The Life of Dr. John North.2 Millard has now turned his editing skill to North’s autobiographical Notes of Me, another seminal work, which Millard persuasively argues to be a key to the understanding not only of North’s life, but of the rest of his writings as well.

1.2 Though Francis North, Roger’s older brother, was the only family member actually to publish a treatise on music during his lifetime,3 Roger North is familiar to any student of Restoration music as a result of his manuscript writings. In recent years, Mary Chan and Jamie C. Kassler have published editions of North’s main musical works, Cursory Notes on Musicke (ca. 1710) and The Musical Grammarian (1728), revealing North’s breadth of musical thought.4 However, before these editions appeared, the publication Roger North on Music, edited by John Wilson, offered easy accessibility to a selection of North’s thoughts of musical relevance through a collection of excerpted passages from at least fifteen different manuscripts.5 Among those manuscripts was GB-Lbl Add. 32,506, the main source for Notes of Me. Wilson included in his collection the entire section entitled “As to musick” (fols. 69r-87v), in which North discusses his ideas concerning his musical training and musical experiences, the ideal method of teaching music, and the current state of performance—particularly in London. This section is little changed in Millard’s new transcription of the entire manuscript; however, the value of this new edition to music scholars should not be overlooked.

2. “The Natural History of Mankind”

2.1 North viewed the biographical form as didactic: instructive on a moral level, in accordance with the prevailing opinion of the day, but also instructive on a practical level. In North’s opinion, the study of the lives of ordinary men is “more profitable than state history.”6 But even more telling is his phrase regarding biography as “the natural history of mankind,” which implies that North understood autobiography as a form of study in which the details of one person’s existence might have broader implications for all of humanity.7 With this in mind, North’s Notes of Me is most profitably viewed as a complete work in which separate sections—though informative as excerpted pieces—are better understood as part of a larger, integrated discourse. His life study, as it may more properly be termed, is both chronological and thematic, moving from childhood until the time of writing with brief sojourns to develop areas of particular interest. The section concerning music falls between the discussion of “Architecture, Perspective, Mathematics, and Light” and the “Entrance to Law,” which can be viewed as a transition between his youthful studies and his adult career as well as part of North’s self-analysis into the continuing interests that had both affected and shaped his character. Both Chan and Kassler have observed that in light of North’s views about “life-writing,” even his separate treatises can be seen as extensions of Notes of Me.8

2.2 In line with his philosophy, North gives the reader a rich and complex account of himself; however, embedded throughout the narrative is his socio-political message of anti-Whig conservatism. After the events of 1688, North described London’s political life as “a vast forest of perfidy”9 and retired from it to write and reflect, at which time he began his Notes. In his vivid self-portrayal he emphasizes particularly his love of music. Here one sees primarily his conservatism in his inclination toward the bass viol, John Jenkins’ fantasias, and in his views regarding the frugal use of ornamentation. North’s disparaging opinion of London’s musical scene—especially its concerts—is at least partially due to the conservative, anti-urban stance he adopted as part of his resistance to what he perceived as a growing Whig hegemony.10 On the other hand, one can see a progressive side of North in his interest for newer Italian music, particularly that of Archangelo Corelli, and in his belief that all music students should learn theory. Taken as a whole, the Notes offer a more accurate picture of North than his other writings, allowing the reader better to contextualize his comments and contrast them with those of his contemporaries for a fuller understanding of Restoration musical life.

3. The Edition

3.1 Millard’s edition is clear and informative. The editorial method compromises a strict adherence to the original text with some silent modernizations (which Millard discusses at the end of his Introduction), meant to make the text more accessible for general readers. This is the first complete edition of North’s Notes: it includes sections omitted from the earlier printed version11 and corrects both earlier transcription errors and bowdlerizations. The extensive notes inform the reader about the terms and personalities mentioned and provide cross-references to comparable passages in North’s other writings. Millard also identifies the books, treatises, and even the very passages of other writers, such as Hobbes and Locke, to whom North refers. These features, together with an informative introduction summarizing North’s life and his views on biography, make for a useful and engaging edition of this autobiographical work. Notes of Me is a welcome contribution toward a better understanding of Roger North—the very human personality behind the words of one of the most evocative witnesses to the musical life of Restoration England—and will be a valuable addition to the collection of anyone working in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth centuries.


* Stacey Jocoy Houck (stacey.houck@ttu.edu) is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Texas Tech University. Her research interests include British music and its social and political impact from the 1630s through the time of Purcell.

1 F. J. M. Korsten’s study Roger North (1651–1734): Virtuoso and Essayist (Amsterdam: Holland University Press, 1981) provides transcriptions of North’s essays, which cover such diverse topics as pride, the clergy, “etimology,” and breeding. Henry Colvin and John Newman have edited a collection of North’s comments concerning architecture in Of Building: Roger North’s Writings on Architecture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

2 Roger North, General Preface & the Life of Dr. John North, ed. Peter Millard (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984).

3 Francis North, A Philosophical Essay of Musick directed to a Friend (London, 1677).

4 Roger North’s Cursory Notes of Musicke (c. 1698 – c. 1703): a Physical, Psychological and Critical Theory, ed. Mary Chan and Jamie C. Kassler (Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales, 1985); and Roger North’s The Musical Grammarian 1728, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990). In addition to these works on music, Chan has edited North’s biography of his brother Francis, The Life of the Lord Keeper North by Roger North, Studies in British History 41 (Lewiston, New York: E. Mellen Press, 1995); and Chan and Kassler have compiled a study of North’s complete writings in Roger North: Materials for a Chronology of his Writings: Checklist No. 1, North Papers 4 (Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales, 1989). Together with Janet D. Hine, they have produced a study of North’s early music manuscripts, Roger North’s Writings on Music c. 1704 – c. 1709: Digests of the Manuscripts with Analytical Indexes, North Papers 5 (Kensington, NSW: University of New South Wales, 1999); and Roger North’s “Of Sounds” and Prendcourt Tracts: Digests and Editions with an Analytical Index (Kensington, NSW: University of Auckland, 2000).

5 Roger North on Music Being a Selection from his Essays Written during the Years c. 1695–1728, ed. John Wilson (London: Novello, 1959).

6 General Preface, 51.

7 Notes of Me, 42.

8 Kassler, Cursory Notes of Music, 35; Chan, Lord Keeper, xli.

9 Korsten, 61.

10 Notes of Me, 52–3.

11 The Autobiography of the Hon. Roger North, ed. Augustus Jessopp (London: D. Nutt, 1887).

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